You’ve Got Soil Questions, and We’ve Got Answers

If you want to know how to access soil information for your property, work with multiple soils, or learn how to adapt your forest management for the soils you have, the USDA has online resources available to all that can help guide you through those processes.

Q: How can I access soil information for my property?

A: The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes soil survey data online through a platform called Web Soil Survey. Although some areas are still undergoing initial mapping, the vast majority of private lands in the Pacific Northwest have soil survey data available. The data is available to the public, and best of all, it’s free! The following steps will help you obtain soils information for your property:

Step 1: Start Web Soil Survey by going to websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm. Click the large green “START WSS” button.

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Step 2: Define your area of interest (AOI). This is the area for which you will be obtaining soil survey data. You can simply enter an address or select a state/county, click “view”, and then zoom to your desired location on the map. Other navigation options are also available, although these methods are the most common and user-friendly.

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Once you are zoomed to your property or desired location, click the rectangular AOI tool to drag a box or use the polygon AOI tool to click around your select your AOI.

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The rectangle or polygon you select should then look like this:

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Step 3: View your soil map. Click the “Soil Map” tab at the top of your screen to see the soil survey map for your AOI. The map unit legend will appear on the left side of your screen. Clicking on the name of a map unit in the legend will open a window containing a description of that map unit and its individual soil components.

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Q: The soil map unit covering my property has multiple soils in it. How do I know which one I am working with?

A: In order to answer this question effectively I first need to clarify what exactly a “map unit” is, as well as explain the different types of map units used in soil surveys.

A map unit is a collection of areas defined and named the same in terms of their soil components (unique soil types) and/or miscellaneous (“non-soil”) areas. Each polygon delineated on a soil map is assigned a label or symbol that corresponds to a map unit. There are four general types of map units, however, for the purpose of this discussion I will focus on the three most commonly seen in soil survey products.

Consociations are map units dominated by a single soil component. A consociation may include minor components that occupy a relatively small (< 15%) percentage of the map unit area, but the map unit name will contain only the name of the dominant soil. Complexes and associations are map units consisting of two or more dissimilar components that occur in a consistent repeating pattern. The soil components comprising a complex cannot be separated at the mapping scale, while the components of an association can be; however, due to land use or user needs, they are not. Both of these map unit types may also include minor components. The map unit names for complexes and associations will contain the names of multiple soils.

Now to answer the original question: The map unit description (accessible by following step 3 above) will provide descriptions of typical site the soil characteristics for each component in the map unit. The type of map unit covering your property can be inferred from the map unit name. If the map unit is a consociation, the soil component that you are most likely working with is going to be the single dominant component for that map unit. However, if the specific area on your property is not representative of the map unit’s typical landscape/landform, you may be working with a minor component.

If the map unit covering your property is a complex or association, you will have to look at the map unit description to determine the component(s) you are working with. Soils tend to correlate strongly with topography, so focusing on the “setting” category for each component’s description is recommended. If the setting details alone don’t allow you to confidently determine your soil, the “properties and qualities” category under each component’s description would be the next best place to look. The goal is to find the component that has both a setting and soil characteristics that best match the point on your property that you are interested in. If that area on your property is rather large and not uniform, there is a high probability that multiple soils will exist in that area, especially if the map unit is a complex.

Q: How can soil information help me make management decisions?

A: Having a basic understanding of the distribution and characteristics of your soils can be extremely beneficial to you as a landowner. Knowledge of soil properties such as texture, drainage class, depth to a restrictive layer, and flooding or ponding frequency can influence management decisions including road and structure placement, as well as species selection and planting density strategies.

The summary information found in the map unit description provides a great overview of site and soil properties. However, the Web Soil Survey platform also contains hundreds of interpretations and thematic maps specifically designed to aid in the making of management decisions. Again, these tools are free and available to the public! The following steps will walk you through how to access and use these valuable tools.

Step 1: Define your AOI and access your soil map, as shown in steps 1-3 above. Click on the “Soil Data Explorer” tab. Then click either the “Suitabilities and Limitations for Use” or “Soil Reports” tab.

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Step 2: Both the “Land Management” and “Vegetative Productivity” categories have several interpretations concerning various aspects of forestry operations. Click the downward facing arrow for these categories and then click the downward facing arrow for any interpretation you would like to run. Look through the options and customize them to best apply to your situation. For example:

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Step 3: Once you have your options selected, click the “View Rating” button to see your customized interpretive map. Click the yellow “Legend” tab on the upper-left side of the map to see the map legend. Below the map will be tables containing more detailed results for the selected interpretation.

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Step 4: Explore the many reports and interpretations available under the “Suitabilities and Limitations for Use” and “Soil Reports” tabs. You may save the results of any report or interpretation by clicking the “Add to Shopping Cart” button located in the upper-right of the screen.  You can save numerous interpretations and reports by adding them to your cart. When you are finished, simply click on the “Shopping Cart (Free)” tab, review the table contents, and then click “Check Out” to download a PDF copy of your comprehensive report.

Max Ross, Soil Scientist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, max.ross@wa.usda.gov

Application Cut-off Date Extended for EQIP Statewide Initiatives

The application deadline for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in Washington state has been extended to October 16, 2015.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program in Washington State The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which operates the program, says that eligible producers, including forest landowners, now have until October 16 to submit applications for consideration in fiscal year 2016. The original deadline was July 17, 2015. Producers should also expect to work with NRCS to write a personalized conservation plan before funding is authorized.

The voluntary federal program provides technical and financial assistance program to farmers who want to improve irrigation efficiency; manage run-off of nutrients or animal waste; improve the health of native plant communities; and reduce soil losses. In most instances, producers who participate in the program pay for roughly half of the costs of the conservation measures or practices.

EQIP funding options include:

EQIP Local Working Group funding pool: Funding for regional priority resource concerns identified by counties.

EQIP Organic Initiative: Helps organic farmers, ranchers and dairy operators and those transitioning to organic production in Washington state to plan and install conservation measures such as buffer strips, conservation crop rotation, cover crops, field borders, mulching, nutrient management, and other steps.

EQIP High Tunnel Initiative: Financial and technical assistance for agricultural producers to plan and install seasonal high tunnels to extend the growing season and improve soil health.

EQIP Conservation Activity Plans. Plans can be developed for producers to identify conservation practices that address a specific natural resource needs.

EQIP Energy Initiative: Helps producers conserve energy on their farms through on-farm energy audits.

EQIP Sage Grouse Initiative: Helps private landowners to voluntarily protect sage-grouse populations and habitat on their working lands.

“Extending the deadline will give producers more time to complete their applications and have a greater chance of getting conservation funding during this fiscal year,” said Assistant State Conservationist for Programs, Jeff Harlow.

While NRCS programs operate on a year-round signup basis, and producers can file applications at any time, periodic ranking deadlines are established so applications on file at that time can be evaluated for the next available funding allocation.

Applicants must provide a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number, be registered in the System for Award Management (SAM), and maintain an active registration with current information prior to applying for funding and to remain eligible for payments under a funded contract. For more information regarding SAM and DUNS, or if interested in applying for EQIP funding, contact your local NRCS field office.

Focus On: Designated Forest Land

Designated forest land is a property tax assessment option that has some advantages for forest landowners. Normally, real property in the state of Washington is taxed based on an estimate of its fair market value, which should reflect what is called “highest and best use” (HBU): the most economically advantageous use of the land (often real estate development). With the designated forest land option, the taxable value of forested land is assessed for forestry use, which is a much lower value. This option was established by the Washington state legislature in the 1970s (Revised Code of Washington, 84.33).

The purpose of the designated forest land option encourage landowners to keep their land in forest use and reduce the economic disincentives for doing so. The legislature recognized that productive forest lands provide a multitude of public benefits such as water supply, soil protection, stormwater management, wildlife habitat, aesthetics, recreation opportunity, ecosystem health, and jobs (Revised Code of Washington, 84.33.010(1)).

Qualifying for the Designation

The assessed value of designated forest land is set in statute and in 2014 ranged from $1/acre to $189/acre based on soil productivity and operability, which takes into account the ease and cost of timber extraction. Current values can be found on the Department of Revenue (DOR) website. In contrast to these values, assessed market values could be thousands of dollars per acre. Designating your land as forest can reduce the tax burden by up to 99 percent on the forested portions of your property. The assessment of the residential (e.g. home site) portion of your property and any structures would not see a reduction.

To be designated as forestland, the land must be at least five contiguous acres of forest (which can comprise multiple adjacent parcels), not including any residential portions. Typically, a minimum of one acre is excluded from the designation when there is a residence on the land. Thus, landowners living on their property should have at least six acres total, five of which must be forest. The law specifies that land designated as forest must be “devoted primarily to growing and harvesting timber” (Revised Code of Washington 84.33.035(5)). Those who are primarily interested in managing their forestland for aesthetics, recreation, habitat, etc., or do not intend to use their land for timber production for other reasons should not enroll in this option. At the discretion of the county assessor, a written timber management plan may be required when enrolling or selling designated forestland. To help landowners weave their way through the various requirements, WSU Extension designed its Forest Stewardship Coached Planning classes to help land owners write their own qualifying timber management plans. Land owners may also opt to hire a consultant to write the management plan.

The acreage minimum for designated forest land used to be 20 acres. However, the law changed in 2014 to reduce the minimum to five acres. Until 2014, a separate-but-similar program — open space timber —was available to landowners with five or more acres. The purpose of the law change was to streamline and simplify things by not having two separate programs. Counties are not required to eliminate their open space timber programs, but they are given the option to do so. In many counties, landowners may receive a notice from the county assessor that their land is being transferred from open space timber to designated forestland. This does not change the landowner’s tax benefit or otherwise have negative impacts, so landowners who receive this notice should not be concerned.

While designated forestland has its basis in state law, it is administered at the county level by the assessor’s office. Application must be made by December 31 for consideration the following year. If the county does not make a decision about an application by May 1 of that following year, it is automatically considered approved. If the application is approved that following year, the property will be assessed that year at the new, lower rate for taxes that will be payable in the year after that. For example, if you apply for forestland designation before December 31, 2015, and it is approved, your property will be assessed at the lower forestland value in 2016 for taxes payable in 2017. The first year of lower tax payments would be 2017.

Removing the forestland designation

Those who have a forestland designation but wish to remove it are likely to face another tax: known as compensating tax. This tax is calculated by taking the tax difference between the designated forest land assessment and the full value assessment in the year that the designation is removed and multiplying by nine years, or however many years the land was enrolled, if fewer than nine years.

Because this can be a significant tax amount, landowners should carefully consider their long-term plans before applying to classify their property as designated forest land. If a landowner is not committed to managing the land for timber production for at least ten years, this designation might not be a good option. Designated forest land can be sold and can retain the designation so long as the buyer agrees in writing to continue managing for timber production. This agreement is called a continuance. The county assessor may require the buyer signing a continuance to submit a new timber management plan. If the buyer declines a continuance, the seller must pay the compensating tax to the county before the sale can be recorded.

Impact on community, taxes

Some have raised objections to the program, claiming that decreasing the tax burden on forestland effectively increases the tax burden on other lands in the county. Others, however, note that forestland owners are expected to provide many public benefits with no compensation and also have many regulatory constraints imposed upon them by the public. Furthermore, studies of the cost of community services have found that forestlands contribute more in taxes than they cost in public services (a median of $0.37 in services required per $1.00 of revenue produced), while residential lands cost more in public services than they contribute in taxes ($1.19 in services required per $1.00 of revenue produced), according to a 2007 report by the American Farmland Trust. Thus the issue of equability is subject to debate.

By Kevin Zobrist, Regional Extension Forestry Specialist, kevin.zobrist@wsu.edu

(This article was first published in January 2015 WSU North Puget Sound Extension Forestry E-Newsletter)

Helpful Timber Tax Information

Looking for federal income tax information regarding forest land and timber?  An excellent source for forest landowners and their tax advisors is the National Timber Tax website: timbertax.org

Among the site’s helpful resources are links to these popular publications:

  • Tax Tips for Forest Landowners for the 2014 Tax Year
  • Forest Owners Guide to the Federal Income Tax
  • Estate Planning for Forest Landowners:  What Will Become of Your Timberland

Sponsored by the US Forest Service, American Tree Farm System and Woodland Owners Association, timbertax.org provides access to numerous webinars as well as forms and guidance from 50 states.

Small Forest Landowners and the Four Letter “S” Word ….

Who are small forest landowners and what do they want?

Small forest landowners own forestland for lots of reasons. Growing the most timber possible or making the most money possible are almost never among those reasons. According to a recent national survey, only a small segment (8 percent) of private, non-industrial forest landowners who collectively own 12 percent of family forest land is primarily concerned with productivity and profit.

A much larger chunk, classed as “Woodland Retreat” owners and accounting for 40 percent of small forest landowners and 35 percent of family forest land, is primarily interested in the beauty and recreational values their land could provide. Another 30 percent of owners—the “Working the Land” owners holding 37 percent of total family forest land—are motivated by an ethic of respectful and judicious land use, and want to manage primarily to preserve the ecological health of their land along with retaining its financial value. Together these groups account for 70 percent of owners and 72 percent of the area managed by small forest landowners.

Ecology matters and is trying to tell us something in eastern Washington

Interesting discords arise when you overlay the reasons that people own and manage forestland onto a largely fire-driven ecosystem that has been substantially disrupted for about 100 years by suppressing fires, harvesting timber, and building houses in forests, among other human activities.

 It is not uncommon for people to buy forestland in eastern Washington with the intention of “letting the land and forest heal.” What they often want is for their forest “grow into a natural condition, unperturbed by the influence of man.” This may be a laudable goal, depending on your point of view, but this approach to management rarely produces desirable outcomes in eastern Washington.

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Periodic ‘thinning’ by natural fire helped produce the familiar open ponderosa forest landscape. Photo: Carol Mack/WSU.

Generally, the forestland in eastern Washington owned by small forest landowners is in lower elevation areas where fire used to be a frequent and persistent change agent. Fires serve many ecological functions including removing dead wood, resetting stand trajectories to younger-aged forests, and changing tree species composition to more fire-tolerant tree species. Without periodic fires, eastern Washington forests tend towards overly dense stands, comprised of tree species that are highly susceptible to damage from insects, diseases and fire. Landowners hoping to “restore nature” by protecting their forest from disturbance and letting their forest grow may in fact be continuing the dramatic disruption of natural processes initiated when fire was removed from the ecosystem. Instead of taking charge of managing the land with respect to ecological processes, they are ceding management. Nature’s answer to forests out of synch is generally provided in the forms of forest insects, diseases and/or fire.

Active management to restore ecological processes

It is not practical to reintroduce fire across the landscape at the scale at which it occurred before European settlement, so the alternative is to manage forests by other means with historic ecological processes in mind. Managing to “let the land and forest heal” is really about restoring the processes, structures and functions forests once had. This will more likely be accomplished by active rather than passive management. For example, cutting some trees and leaving others can create a forest more like what natural processes would have created.

Thinning a mixed conifer forest
Thinning a mixed conifer forest. Photo: John Stuart.

A common forest management approach is to favor ponderosa pine and western larch as “leave trees.” Both species are shade-intolerant, fire-tolerant and resistant to many insects and diseases. You might need to remove much of your grand fir, a fire-intolerant and shade-tolerant tree that once occupied a much smaller part of inland forests before fire suppression. Grand fir seeds prolifically lead to thick understory stands that are susceptible to many insects and diseases. Depending on the current condition of your forest, “cutting” may mean thinning dense stands of young trees. It may involve a partial cut, possibly even a heavy cut of overstory trees to achieve the intended outcome of an ecologically sustainable forest while still giving attention to a landowner’s other objectives.

Is there a secret language used in the backwoods of eastern Washington?

An aversion to active management of the forest leads to a second interesting discord for some forestland owners. Many landowners envision time and protection as the tools they will use to accomplish their objectives of restoring the forest. Imagine their consternation as they learn that working towards a sustainable forest that replicates historical conditions may be best accomplished using tools such as chainsaws, bulldozers, logging trucks, and drip torches. A recipe for conflict and debate, is it not?

One really good way for landowners to get expert advice on how best to achieve their objectives is to engage the services of a forest consultant. All of the consultants I know in eastern Washington are extremely knowledgeable about forestry and intensely in tune to the reality that every landowner has different objectives for their forest. Good forest consultants are also very astute in the business aspects of forestry—how to, for example, get a high-quality, professional logging crew to harvest the selected ‘cut’ trees and leave behind no damage, or how to sell logs to a mill at the best value possible to generate funds for accomplishing other management objectives.

To make the relationship between client and consultant go well, landowners are advised to be cognizant of the language involved in the profession as well as the basic concepts of human applied management. I’ve seen instances in which the initial encounter between a “Woodland Retreat” landowner and a forest consultant did not go well because of a conceptual gap in understanding when the S-A-L-E word comes up.

A timber sale is a powerful tool for creating desirable forest conditions in eastern Washington, substantially replacing work once done by fire. In addition to being an ecologically sound way to create healthy fire-, insect-, and disease-resistant forests, timber sales help society by providing valuable wood products and jobs for communities. But for many landowners, it may seem ‘wrong’ to make money off of a forest they perceive as being damaged and in need of TLC. Consultants are encouraged to listen carefully to landowners’ objectives and try to see the forest as landowners do. They must provide information to landowners where their assumptions do not match ecological reality. Landowners are encouraged to be willing to constantly learn and challenge old assumptions about the forest ecosystems they own and manage. They should seek to understand the tools and techniques available to restore and sustainably manage forests so as not to be put off by using active management, and even a timber sale, as a tool to restore forest health.

Two great opportunities are available to small forest landowners to begin this process. One is to call the DNR Stewardship Forester in your area to get a free, on-the-ground professional perspective on what management practices may best help you meet your objectives. The other is to participate in a WSU Extension Forest Stewardship Coached Planning Course which covers forest ownership from the ground up.

And, that brings me to the 4-letter word that starts with “s”. That word is, of course, S-O-I-L. Always take care of your soil in any of the work you do on your forest land—but that is an article for a future issue!

by Steve McConnell, Regional Extension Specialist, Forestry smcconnell@spokanecounty.org

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